Links Between Food and Challenging Behaviours

Are there any links between food and challenging behaviours in children? And if so, what are they?

autism and challenging behaviours

According to research, one of the most significant predictors of challenging behaviours in children, is the presence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (McCarthy, Underwood, Tsakanikos, Craig, Howlin & Bouras, 2014) – or ASD as it is also known.

Using the Developmental Behaviour Checklist (Einfield & Tonge, 2002), researchers measured behavioural and emotional disturbance in young people aged 4-18 years with developmental and intellectual disabilities, including ASD, using five categories which included:

  • disruptive/antisocial;
  • self-absorbed;
  • communication disturbance;
  • anxiety; and
  • social relating (McCarthy et al, 2014).

This may indicate a link between high levels of challenging behaviours in children with ASD, and the motivations of parents selecting food. For example, a stressful feeding encounter is not likely to encourage a child to eat novel or new foods (Fisher & Birch, 1999). In fact, studies show that how parents react to their child’s eating behaviours could further influence picky eating behaviours and affect psychological determinants of eating later in life (Van der Horst, 2012).

According to Marchi and Cohen (1990), picky eating is related to family conflict, specifically – conflict between parents on the management of the child. And behavioural problems in the child tended to be found when the child is a picky eater (Jacobi, Schmitz & Agras, 2008).

Food Sensitivities

But what about food sensitivities, another trait of Autism Spectrum Disorder. How does that affect parental food choice motivations?

Past studies investigating children with ASD have found that repetitive eating patterns and food choices can be particular around food texture, colour and packaging (Raiten & Massaro, 1986; Cornish, 1998).

A study by Raiten & Massaro (1986) found that parents of children with ASD had a more positive attitude toward nutrition than did parents of controls. Furthermore, the feeding habits of the children with ASD included in the study, appeared to have little significant impact on the quality of the child’s diet.

Children with ASD can have a rigid pattern of interests and an obsessive desire to cling to routines, which may reflect negatively in food behaviour (Cornish, 2002).

link between food and challenging behaviours

Children with ASD are more likely to experience problems with food compared with typically developing children (Sharp et al, 2013). These problems may include food selectivity (Ahearn, Castine, Nault, & Green, 2001), nutritional intake (Johnson et al, 2014), eating problems including behavioural, sensory and food refusal (Martins, Young, & Robson, 2008), and special diets including gluten and casein free diets (Cornish, 2002).

Many factors influence food decisions, including gender, cultural, social, psychological, biological and environmental (Story, Neumark-Sztainer, & French, 2002).

A study by Furst, Connors, Bisogni, Sobal, and Falk (1996) conceptualized food choices based on personal and social influences, which mould an individual’s values including tastes, costs, convenience and health.  Health, sensory appeal and price are generally the highest motivators for food choice, according to a study by Lindeman and Vaananen (2000).

Neurological assessments can be administered by psychologists to assess a child’s behaviour and identify the challenging areas. These problem areas can be the focus of ongoing therapy which can be a more immediate help to parents and the family.

If you are interested in finding out more about the links between food and challenging behaviour, or want further information regarding behavioural issues in children, including those with ASD, please make an appointment with me.

Cassandra Gist Child Psychologist BrisbaneAuthor: Cassandra Gist, BPsych (Hons), MPsych, MAPS.

Brisbane Psychologist Cassandra Gist works with clients aged from two years old right through to adulthood. She has a special interest in working with children and their families around the diagnosis and treatment of issues such as Autism Spectrum Disorder.

To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Cassandra Gist, try  Online Booking – Mt Gravatt or Online Booking – Loganholme. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology (Mt Gravatt) on (07) 3088 5422, or M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.